Head Coach: trail running mind games

TrailRunMag 22.03.2012

It’s cliché enough to warrant inclusion in those ‘Sh#! Ultra Runners Say’ videos doing the YouTube rounds: “You’re gonna hurt after 50-kays no matter what. After that, it’s all in your head.”

Even on shorter trail dashes, you’re bound to hit a wall or two. So how do you push through the brain barrier? Can you condition your mind into faster times and longer distances? Yes you can, says Trail Run Mag’s resident sport psychology guru, Greg Layton …

Gobi March 2008: Alone, with the sun setting behind me in the cooling desert after what has seemed like an endless 80 km, I stumble on – wanting, hoping, dreaming of an end to this 250 km punishment. My mind is on the edge of delirium, my feet are screaming and my tongue is so dry it is pasted to my palette.

An antagonistic internal voice baits me; mocking my effort, mocking my reasons for being here and giving me the ever-present and increasingly more attractive option of quitting. But I carry on –jogging, marching, anything but stopping.

If you’ve been through an experience like this, you’ll have also faced the question from friends and strangers: “Why do you do it?”

Instead of responding with the old, “If you have to ask you’ll never know,” I tell people that I do it because it pushes me into new territory, because it makes me a better man, because it helps me get away from it all and centre myself. I tell them that race experiences are unique and, quite simply, unforgettable.

The truth is, when I started running ultras I didn’t know why I did it other than to prove to myself that I could. In the beginning, my goals were simply to finish select events, but within a year this had changed. I realised I could do any race at all if I was prepared to do the training and stay motivated. And to do this, I had to explore beyond simply ticking off another training session.

Be you a weekend warrior or an elite athlete, goal setting is critical to success. The old saying springs to mind, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”

Sport psychologists have proven time and again that if you don’t have a clear vision of yourself reaching your end goal then the chances of you succeeding are significantly reduced.

No doubt you’ve heard of the concept of ‘SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely) goals’. Valuable though it is to have a SMART framework to your planning, I’ve found these methods just aren’t enough to prepare you for truly life changing, mind-set shifting, performance-smashing goals.

To help you achieve your trail running targets we’ve outlined here some of the most important aspects of setting extraordinary goals:

[NB: There is a Goal Setting Template which works well with the video above].

 Goal Setting Tip #1 – Make ‘em big

According to Anthony Robbins, the renowned American life coach, it’s critical to set big goals that you deem to be truly amazing. Big goals push you to a whole new level and the attraction of achieving them must be genuinely compelling. Become a child again: Remove the adult limitations and just dream. Ask yourself, “What do I really want if I can have anything?”

Goal Setting Tip #2 – Dream ‘em big

The next important step is to imagine what it will be like to achieve your goal. Where will you be? What will it feel like? Who will be present and what will it sound like? By creating this rich vision in your head you’re creating a neural blueprint in a way that is compelling and clear.

Goal Setting Tip #3 – Check the consequences

Sometimes setting out with a big goal can negatively impact other aspects of your life. Your relationships at home, performance in the office or study and other pursuits can slide down your priority list. This is why it’s important that you define not just ‘what’ you are going to do but also ‘how’.

Ask yourself: “If I aim for this goal, what are the likely consequences of my going for it?” To minimise the potentially negative side-effects of your goal chasing, consider adjusting the time frames for achieving it, the training schedule that is necessary or the ways that you plan to incorporate your family and friends into the training regime. Designing a pathway to your goal that is congruous with your other priorities will keep you motivated and create an even more compelling end goal.

Goal Setting Tip #4 – Find ‘The Way’

OK, your goal is now reasonably well formed but it’s the execution that really counts. One excellent way to achieve big running goals is to set a series of smaller targets along the way that weave-in local events and even some bigger, exciting events abroad. An example would be:

  1. April 2012 – First marathon, 42 km
  2. June 2012 – First  >50 km
  3. November 2012 – First  >80 km
  4. January 2012 – First  >100 km
  5. March 2013 – First multi stage ultra >160 km

This progression allows you to always have an event on the horizon. You’ll enjoy the process of preparing for competition and will have performed quite a few times before your big race. It will increase confidence, keep you focused, increase enjoyment through the growth of your social circle, and when you achieve your ultimate goal, helps you look back to track your success.

Goal Setting Tip #5 – Define mini-goals like an athlete

For each goal it’s critical to set out the performance targets, resources and training you’ll need for each of the following:

  • Physical Conditioning
  • Technique
  • Tactics
  • Mental Performance
  • Life Balance

For each mini-goal, list what needs to be achieved in each of these categories and how you’re going to get there. 

Goal Setting Tip #6 – Review regularly

When Apollo 11 was on the way to the moon it was only directly on target two per cent of the time. It can be the same with your progress week to week in achieving goals. Sometimes, you’ll miss a session because of an injury or rest and this is quite normal. The trick is to review your progress every week. Check off how you’re progressing with achieving each of your mini targets and ensure that you are constantly moving towards your goal.

Goal Setting Tip #7 – Celebrate and recover

After achieving each of your mini-goals ensure that you celebrate in your own way and spend some time away from trail running fully recovering. Refresh and renew yourself for a period, then revisit your goal setting workbook, review and plan your next mini goal and get back into it.  

Goal Setting Tip #8 – Bow to peer pressure

Sometimes one of the most effective methods for ensuring you stick to your guns is to tell family, friends and colleagues what you are planning. Even better, get them involved in helping you. Of course, be selective about who you’ll employ to help you; make sure they’ll be the type to get right behind you the whole way.

Goal Setting Tip #9 – Learn from the greats

John Grinder, the co-founder of the performance psychology known as neuro-linguistic programming or NLP, believes that one of the most effective methods of achieving anything is to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants.’ This means to follow the paths of those who have gone before you. A powerful enabler is to ask yourself the following questions: “Has anyone done this before?” and “If they were here, what advice would they give me?” Find the books, interviews, or films that can teach you the experiences of those in whose footsteps you are following. If you can track any of them down, get some tips from the horse’s mouth. 

Goal Setting Tip #10 – Greatness is in your head

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” – Marianne Williamson

Too right! Every one of us has experienced a time in our life when we were truly powerful; in a state that was resourceful, unstoppable, confident and just plain uber. Achieving greatness is simply a pathway that lies before you. If you don’t think you’re ready or have some deep limiting belief then I’ll leave you with two questions:

  1. “What are you pretending to believe to be true in order to think you can’t achieve your dreams?”
  2. “What is not stopping you?”

Now, trail time …

Trail Run Mag’s ‘Head Coach’, Greg Layton is the founder and managing director of NeuroSport, a high performance consultancy that provides the blueprint for building sporting success through mental approach with lessons taken from the world’s most successful teams, the corporate world and high performance psychology. His programs deliver customised high performance coaching and training. And he’s run a lot: learn more about Greg at neurosport.com.au